When I heard that Eddie Vedder had released a new album using nothing but a ukelele and his phenominal voice I had pretty mixed expectations. It was the first album associated with Pearl Jam that had been brought to my attention in over a decade. I don’t know what prompted me to never buy Riot Act, because I loved Binaural, but by 2011 they’d dropped so far off my radar that I didn’t even know the self-titled and Backspacer existed until a few months ago. I made the mistake of jumping immediately to Backspacer without hearing their prior two and was so annoyed by the trendiness of it–that incorporation of a somewhat 80s sound that’s all the deplorable rage now–that I couldn’t make it through one listen.
So Ukelele Songs was in a pretty good position to impress me, really. I knew Eddie Vedder could do better than what I’d so recently heard on Backspacer, I knew the small scope of his instrument of choice would force him to get pretty creative, and at the same time I was already mildly disappointed going into it, so a poor output wouldn’t have been any sort of heartbreak. As it turns out, what he created here is definitely worthy of attention. This may be no Bob Dylan or The Tallest Man on Earth, but as acoustic solo albums go it’s well above average.
The first track, Can’t Keep, is the most abrasive song on the album. Offering it up first might seem an odd decision. It definitely doesn’t set the mood–that’s something you’ll pick up further in. But it does quickly and definitively do away with any stereotype of the ukelele as a Hawaiian novelty toy.
So as he goes on to apply the instrument a bit more traditionally throughout the rest of the album you never second guess his decision to limit himself to it; If he wanted to do something more aggressive he certainly could. Goodbye is one of my favorite examples of what you’re more likely to encounter further in. Most of the tracks are sort of like this, little subdued 2 minute laments reminiscent of Soon Forget on Binaural. They might start to fade together after a while if you don’t pay close attention, but if you do you’ll find he continues to put the instrument to pretty diverse ends even as he’s maintaining the same general mood.
The song that stands out most to me is similar to the opener in that it’s a lot more powerful than the rest of the album, and it really highlights how beautifully Vedder can still sing in the absence of rock and roll. If the entire album had as much emotion packed into it as this one it would be destined for fame. Unfortunately, You’re True doesn’t have much competition there. The rest of the album isn’t so much moving as just calmly pleasant.
Tonight You Belong To Me
Chan Marshall of Cat Power fame makes an appearance on the second to last track, a traditional piece dating back to 1926, marking my other favorite song on the album and the opposite extreme of You’re True. If you think of Ukelele Songs’ sixteen short tracks as all falling somewhere in between these two, you’ll have an idea of what to expect. It’s an unusual and pleasant little work that won’t disappoint, at least so long as you’re expecting what the album title implies and not Pearl Jam. A little too calm and lyrically simplistic to make waves as a folk album, it’s something you’re probably only going to like if you like Eddie Vedder’s voice, but I imagine most people do.
Yeah, nothing earth-shattering here, but it makes me smile, and ever since I picked it up I’ve been on a 90s rock binge, despite of the grand distance between this and the likes of say, Ten or Vs. Vedder’s vocal sound is so unique that you can’t help but make the connection.